There’s a brilliant moment late in “Thor: Ragnarok” in which Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) propels himself out of a spaceship to help his friends in the battle below. By now, most people inundated with Marvel movies over the past decade know the drill: The shock of the free fall transforms Banner into his raging alter ego, The Hulk, who lands on both feet with a domineering thud — except this time, it doesn’t. Banner face-plants on the magic rainbow bridge of Asgard, and for a moment both sides of the conflict stand agape.
This is the essence of the energetic spark that director Taika Waititi brings to the third “Thor” movie, which injects more overt comedy to Marvel’s sprawling expanded universe than ever before. That should come as no surprise: The Kiwi director’s vampire mockumentary “What We Do In the Shadows” and last year’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” illustrate his penchant for comic timing and a geeky sensibility that allows him to turn genre tropes inside out, with an infectious silliness that’s both self-aware and grounded in genuine pathos. “Thor: Ragnarok” doesn’t break fresh ground by Marvel standards, but it livens up the proceedings just enough to grease up the wheels of this franchise behemoth as it careens along.
While Marvel movies have contained flashes of humor since Robert Downey, Jr. first ran his mouth in “Iron Man” — and yes, “Guardians of the Galaxy” and its sequel are both boisterous joy rides in their own right — “Thor: Ragnarok” never goes too long before landing another fresh punchline. That’s a welcome change to this series-within-a-series, six years after Kenneth Branagh’s sturdy “Thor” gave the Norse god-turned-Avenger his first standalone. Chris Hemsworth has always carried a whiff of self-awareness about his muscular, hammer-toting hero through each new Marvel spectacle, but the humor often emerges from the way others react to his cartoonish masculinity; this time, he’s in on the joke, his overconfidence leading the way as if he’s absorbed some degree of Iron Man’s charisma and filtered it through his own theatricality.
All around him, the pieces assemble for a high stakes conflict involving the fate of his home world, but those ingredients — including a half-baked villain played by Cate Blanchett and mythological gobbledygook about prophesies — have a tacked-on quality, as if Waititi and screenwriter Eric Pearson couldn’t wait to get back to the good stuff.
The movie begins with the character dangling upside down, facing a fiery monstrosity that chortles about its plans to destroy Thor’s home world. The beast attempts to deliver its menacing plans in typical psychopathic terms, but Thor keeps twirling around in chains, losing focus. From there, the movie’s rhythm takes shape: Thor takes his duty dead seriously, but he can’t help cracking wise about it.
Battling his way out of one conundrum, he lands in a much bigger one. Back on Asgard, Thor’s wizened father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has gone missing, and his estranged adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is overseeing the kingdom with an egomaniacal grip. Thor thought Loki died at the end of “Thor: The Dark World,” and that ruse has become lore that Loki relishes by ordering a hilarious Asgardian play reenacting the earlier movie’s rather cheesy finale. Waititi, who may identify more with Loki than the real protagonist, seems to be winking at us: Why so serious?
It would be fun enough to watch the brothers bicker and brawl without any real plot pushing things along, but there are bigger forces in play. After a quick and playful visit to Dr. Strange, the brothers find their father lurking in Norway before vanishing to the wind, where he’s replaced by a whole new threat: Their half-sister Hela (Blanchett), the goddess of death, who scowls and spews spindly black armor from every pore. More Maleficient than Ultron, Hela’s a reasonably histrionic figure of gloom, but she’s underutilized for the duration of the movie; Waititi falls short of giving this first-rate actress anything substantial to do with the role. It’s no secret that Marvel has a long-running villain problem, and rather than solving it, Waititi finds another tangent.
It turns out that “Thor: Ragnarok” has less to do with Hela than Thor’s roundabout quest to get back to Asgard so he can stop her from taking over. As the brothers chase their sister through a trippy interdimensional void, they’re tossed into the wasteland of the Planet Sakaar, where the bulk of the movie takes place. That’s when the movie’s exuberance really takes hold: Thor finds himself captured by the booze-guzzling bounty hunter Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, wonderfully rambunctious), a wayward Asgardian warrior who drags the god into the captivity of the planet’s ruler, a flamboyant, psychedelic tyrant named Grandmaster who’s basically Jeff Goldblum playing himself. He’s also one of the Elders of the Universe, a team of knowingly cheesy supervillains best known these days from the “Guardians” movies, but make no mistake — this is Jeff Goldblum, having a blast under wild face paint and eye-rolls galore.
The Grandmaster gets off on forcing his prisoners to face each other in a big arena against his most powerful champion, and the stage is set for a menacing battle to the death. Then Waititi himself pops up as a CGI-covered rock monstrosity with a gentle soul, unloading a wealth of deadpan Kiwi wit just to keep the zany plot off-kilter.
Even though he’s imprisoned, there’s no real sense of peril here, and Waititi understands the luxury he has to keep coloring in the edges of a visually dazzling buddy comedy. With Loki relegated to the sidelines, that buddy comedy dynamic switches up; Thor’s eager to discover that he’s been pitted against his old pal the Hulk, and after a spectacular showdown between the pair, the two rekindle their peculiar bond in captivity while plotting a dramatic escape. So begins more hilarious banter in between brash action sequences that come and go in bursts of shiny colors and explosive sounds.
The whole movie is so light on its feet, and viewers have been so inundated with sophisticated otherworldly environments, that it’s easy to forget just how immersive they have become. Sakaar’s a remarkable vision that suggests the decrepit outer limits of the “Star Wars” universe, where Jedi rejects go to brood, and the Grandmaster towers over it all as a gigantic hologram in one of the movie’s most outrageous images.
All good things must come to an end, and in Marvel movies, the end always looks the same. “Thor: Ragnarok” zips along through its middle section before receding to a dramatic showdown where massive things catch fire and huge armies of people clash in an epic battle, which by now has become an essential ritual. Yet even as “Thor: Ragnarok” sags into familiarity, it does so begrudgingly, and veers off in another idiosyncratic direction moments later.
Another ritual: Each Marvel entry now requires a cliffhanger as the pieces assemble for next year’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” and that’s going to be quite the juggling act for directors Anthony and Joe Russo. (“Avengers: Age of Ultron” felt like a series of movies collapsing into a singularity of special effects.) But if this unwieldy series is fated to hurtle towards another crammed showdown, at least “Thor: Ragnarok” throws a raucous party on the way to blockbuster inevitability.
“Thor: Ragnarok” opens on November 2.